Napoleon: the Imperial Household by Sylvain Cordier

Reviewed by Ian Lipke

Perhaps it is my bourgeois roots that find the lush splendour of Napoleon Bonaparte’s imperial household somewhat sickening. That some way to compensate for the ruin that was France after the long years of revolution had to be found, cannot be denied, but viewing the ostentatious luxury within which one small segment of the French population bathed, seems an unfortunate way for a nation to recover. I think I prefer to remember Napoleon as the man who brought precision and order to the nation without the trappings.

But this is not to take away from the book Napoleon: the Imperial Household which Yale University Press and the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts have recently published. This sumptuous volume contains some of the finest examples of artwork of the time, together with a comprehensive explanation that lays the Imperial Court bare. The script is a work of scholarship and keeps an academic tone consistently throughout the publication. It is not overwhelmed by the artwork which is at all times of a high standard.

On considering the purpose of the current publication I suppose that what we are seeing in this book is a slice of history. No matter how tasteless one might view such a court, the fact is that such did exist and has been written about before now, but nothing written so far has had the impact that the current publication supplies. It is, as Sylvain Cordier stated on another occasion, “… all about the ways a staff can be employed to transform a man into a hero” (MMFA curator at the opening of the Exhibition of Napoleon: Art and Court Life in the Imperial Palace). As a piece of propaganda for the new regime its effect was enormous in that the artists of the day, no matter how republican their politics, could not go past the opportunity to show their works to the people who really mattered.

Courdier and her team have adopted a telling, but not often used, technique of narrating the broader picture by showing the minutiae, such as the cutlery used for special occasions or the detail in a dress or headboard. The masterpieces of famous artists are there in their numbers, but are not overshadowed as much as lessened, by the small things that everyday people may have used.

The book, an undisputed masterpiece in presenting the imperial court, is divided into sections, the first of which is called The Imperial Household: Portraits. In a colourful double spread, the principal duties of the post are explained and a biography of one of the notable figures who assumed the role is given. Where there was conflict between the point of view of the holder of the position and Napoleon himself is made known to readers. Such is the case of Joseph Fesch, the Grand Chaplain, caught in the maelstrom of Napoleon-Papal conflict.

The next section describes the Household and the Palaces. In this context the word “palaces” is defined as Napoleon himself defined it i.e. the presence of the sovereign made the palace regardless of its place within or outside the capital. The imperial household was defined as three principal spaces viz. the Grand appartement de representation the Emperor’s ‘ordinary’ room or place of residence and the Empress’s ‘ordinary’ apartment. By decree secondary spaces were established to house the officers of the Court. This chapter exhibits a number of plans only some of which were implemented, and in a segment that reeks of wealth, describes the supply of Sevres porcelain to the imperial household (much of which was not supplied in Napoleon’s time).

Fontainebleu, the Tuileries and St Cloud were principal components of Napoleon’s system of representation, or as we might say, places where he stayed most often. By residing at Fontainebleu Napoleon made clear that he saw himself as a natural successor to the Valois and Bourbon kings. A total of eight lavish pages are devoted to Fontainebleu. Then come chapters (if I may call them that) on the manifestation of power in the furnishings; the issue of public access to the imperial apartments; and court dress (including colour coding) and the influence it gave to the wearer, that conclude this section.

The next section is called Art and Majesty. A major chapter on current artists to the Imperial Household gives way to a huge series that encompasses planning a portrait of the emperor, (there is a telling anecdote on the disagreement of an employee with the emperor over the suitability of art to hang in the empress’s apartment), which opens out into a discussion of major pieces of art at the time. Then follows a series of discussions on furnishings, fabrics and clothing, in particular with respect to the emperor’s Grand Cabinet. The section concludes with segments on gift giving to diplomats and noteworthy others, table settings where the name Sevres figures prominently, and ends with the tale of a master silversmith.

The next section, called Serving the Imperial Family, contains chapters on preparing a banquet for the wedding of Napoleon and Marie-Louise; there is a discussion on stables, coaches and the Grand Corteges, and the imperial hunt. Information about the empress’s household, the Marescot family, the Emperor’s Cabinet, and theatres of the regime leads the reader into a final section called Epilogue. Naturally enough, this covers the year preceding Napoleon’s defeat  and his subsequent stays at Elba and St Helena. It is a wry twist that the book makes much of a three-tiered birdcage that Napoleon orders constructed in his prison on St Helena Island. The saga ends with a portrait (also called ‘photograph’) of the dead Napoleon taken by his guard who, being an Englishman charged with a duty he considered distasteful, was more than ready to leave the island. The final comment should be left with Cordier: “That painting [of Napoleon in death] is by Denzil O. Ibbetson, who was also the goods and food purveyor to the house,” said Cordier. “He was English, so as far as he was concerned he wasn’t depicting an emperor — he was portraying a newly deceased general. He was one of the last people allowed in the bedchamber the day after Napoleon died; he made a few sketches of the corpse and went and made three portraits, of which I feel the one you see here is the best. Remember, to him and the other English this was a death that effectively meant the story was finished, that they could all go home. So it carries that meaning, in addition to the usual associations of a death portrait.”

The usual referencing that Yale does so well is a strengthening feature. The book is placed within a lavish cover and proper exposure is given to Sylvain Cordier who curated the function in Montreal and wrote a number of pieces for the book. This is an out of the ordinary way of telling the history of a regime but, on reflection, I realise that I now have a greater knowledge of Napoleon’s household and also a better grasp of the man himself. The book is not overpriced when one considers the rewards of owning such a masterpiece.

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